Lil Nas X, Jennifer Lopez, Grimes and the enduring appeal of celebrity paparazzi photos

It's the early 2000s, and your favorite celebrity gossip magazine features shots of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck cozying up together, a boundary-breaking artist trolling photographers over her rumored breakup, and one of the world’s biggest stars in music seemingly drunk after a big night out. 

Wait, no. The content is certainly reminiscent of the Y2K celebrity gossip era, but this is all happening in 2021. 

The smartphone age has allowed everyone to become a photographer – including stars themselves, who can share their own life updates directly with fans on social media. But that hasn't quelled fans' interest in a paparazzi shot of their favorite star taken by a third party, even as recent discourse surrounding Britney Spears' conservatorship has prompted calls to consider the ethics behind celebrity gossip culture

"Intimacy is key," says Vanessa Díaz, a cultural anthropologist at Loyola Marymount University and the author of "Manufacturing Celebrity: Latino Paparazzi and Women Reporters in Hollywood," noting that our extensive knowledge of celebrities’ personal lives makes it feel like they are friends or family. 

“Most people during the pandemic have been in some form of isolation now for a year and a half. And so of course we want that intimacy with our known ones or our loved ones," Díaz adds. Celebrity couples "have a familiarity and this intimacy that, frankly, we’re all craving because many people can’t see their family and friends the way they used to.” 

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Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez travel across the Venice basin aboard a vaporetto taxi boat on Sept. 9, 2021, after arriving for the 78th Venice Film Festival.

Grimes went viral last weekend for paparazzi shots of her walking around while reading “The Communist Manifesto,” amid reports of a split from Tesla CEO Elon Musk, recently named the second-wealthiest person in America. Photos of Lil Nas X leaving a MTV VMAs afterparty surfaced last month after the "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" artist was spotted stumbling while getting into a car.

Tabloids and entertainment publications "have allowed the rest of the world to see what we in Hollywood see daily: celebrities out in the wild," says crisis communications consultant Holly Baird.

The supposed candidness of those photos lets the rest of us feel like insiders and adds a layer of authenticity that followers wouldn’t necessarily feel had Grimes or Lil Nas X taken and posted those photos themselves (though Grimes later did). 

“We want that daily access, for sure, but there's still always this feeling of, we want to know the real story,” says Díaz, also a former People magazine reporter. “At the end of the day, we know that social media is curated.” 

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The trend of mashing couples’ names together to form one “couple name” dates back decades, Díaz notes. Think Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball naming their production company Desilu, or John Lennon and Yoko Ono creating Lenono Music. But it wasn’t until Affleck and Lopez got together that the celebrity news industry came to realize just how valuable the Bennifers and Brangelinas of Hollywood were. 

"If I talk to you about my mom, you don't know who my mom is and you don't really care. But if I talk to you about Bennifer, you know exactly what I'm talking about," Díaz says. "And now we know they're back together, we know all of this really intimate information. So documentation of that? Of course people want that."

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, or Brangelina, as they were known, were another major celebrity couple in 2000s tabloids.

For roughly 30 years, People magazine had no direct competition in the U.S. when it came to weekly celebrity news publications, Díaz writes in her book. Things changed in the early 2000s, when Us magazine relaunched as a weekly publication, followed by tabloids such as OK! and In Touch, plus the beginnings of online gossip blogs like Perez Hilton and Just Jared, which transformed the celebrity news world from one that was relatively 9 to 5 to a 24/7 cycle. The sudden celebrity news boom led to an increased need – and bidding wars for – celebrity photos. 

That expansion "created this market where the magazines were really struggling to make their products distinctive,” Díaz says. “In contrast to something like a red carpet photo, which are obtained by multiple photographers at any premiere or special event … that ability to get exclusive paparazzi shots became a really crucial selling point.” 

That's when things took a turn for the worse, Baird argues. "The 2000s defined our culture and served as a benchmark decade to propel us into an obsessed society where unnecessary paparazzi involvement and lack of boundaries for other’s personal lives generated … revenue for media." 

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Renewed debate of how paparazzi and gossip magazines have treated stars, thanks in part to documentaries about Spears, highlights a complicated, sometimes contentious relationship between stars and those covering their personal lives.

"The energy from the people is getting kind of scary," Spears told Matt Lauer in a 2006 "Dateline" interview. "I can't leave my home right now." 

When Lauer asked if paparazzi leaving her alone was "one of (her) biggest wishes," Spears tearfully whispered, "Yeah." 

Britney Spears is the focus of paparazzi lenses on Aug. 23, 2004, in Los Angeles.

Analyzing old celebrity paparazzi content has become increasingly popular on social media platforms. Many users are drawing attention to celebrities such as Selena Gomez and Paris Jackson, who have voiced discomfort with being followed by paparazzi. 

"Celebrities have no privacy due to the bombarding of paparazzi in their everyday lives," says Baird. She notes that interest in these photos on social media creates a never-ending cycle for fans and consumers. 

"Paparazzi are simultaneously hated but their work is championed and valuable," Diaz adds. Fans "are angry at the paparazzi for supposedly invading these people's lives who they feel like they know, but at the same time the reason they feel they know them is because of those stories told through paparazzi imagery." 

Given the online discussion, audiences have had time to reflect on the sometimes harmful nature of these photos. So why are they still interested?

"It’s like an escape for us: We watch people do these things in life that seem glamorous or fun, but we also like to see the trainwreck of it all,” Diaz says. “People want to see the highs and people want to see the lows, because that allows you to live vicariously and then also say, ‘Oh, but they’re falling off the deep end and I’m not going to do that.' ” 

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Stars such as Gigi Hadid and Blake Lively have also made pleas to photographers and news outlets to keep their young children’s faces out of the spotlight

“You know we have never intentionally shared our daughter's face on social media," Hadid wrote this summer in an Instagram Story. "Our wish is that she can choose how to share herself with the world when she comes of age, and that she can live as normal of a childhood as possible, without worrying about a public image that she has not chosen." 

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Where do we go from here? 

The beginning of the pandemic brought upon a greater need for escape from the latest worrying headlines, which some found through celebrity gossip. (Remember the internet’s obsession with Affleck and then-girlfriend Ana de Armas?) But Díaz doesn't believe readers' interest has ever fully waned – or will in the future, either. 

"There's always going to be this kind of voyeuristic interest in (celebrities') private lives in a way that isn't facilitated by themselves," Díaz says. "Unless celebrity as we know it ceases to exist completely, which I don't think that it will … there's always going to be a space for interest in these figures that we collectively know."

The #FreeBritney movement could offer some insights into the future of celebrity privacy: As Spears' conservatorship case has transpired, fans across the country have joined together to call for both her freedom from the conservatorship and privacy for her personal life. 

"I advocate for fans to take a beat and rip off the rose-colored celeb-frenzy lenses and realize celebrities are humans with daily ups and downs," Baird says. "Someone else’s personal life shouldn’t be your source of entertainment."

One thing is for certain: Despite how media and communication have evolved through the years, our collective intrigue with celebrities' lives has persevered. 

"In this moment where everyone’s thirsty for intimacy and everyone wants to know what’s going on with the people they know, being able to have a new slew of shots of them being together that gives us a window into their lives? Everyone’s really hungry for that," Díaz says.

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